It seems Tesla chief executive Elon Musk has an opinion about everything. Most recently, he falsely called one of the Thai cave rescuer “a pedo” after the latter ridiculed Musk’s submarine-based rescue attempt. He’s repeatedly skirmished with the media, including attacking a Business Insider correspondent who, Musk alleged without evidence, “published several false articles about Tesla.”
Do false accusations and fights with journalists remind you of anyone? Perhaps a president whose last name rhymes with dump?
Once upon a time, anti-Trumpers thought they had an ally in Musk, who resigned from a presidential business advisory council after the Trump administration walked away from the Paris climate accords. More than a few appeared shocked this past weekend when Musk turned up on a list of big-money donors as maintaining a Republican majority in the House of Representatives. Musk’s excuse? “They will listen when I call to object about issues that negatively affect humanity.” In fact, subsequent reporting revealed Musk is dividing his political donations equally between Democrats and Republicans — just as you would expect a CEO who is tending to his company to do. It’s just business as usual.
From the very beginning of Trump’s administration, more than a few liberals have hoped corporate leaders like Musk would boldly step up in the face of the president’s rude and erratic behavior. Any number of high-ranking corporate executives have, after all, positioned themselves as leaders in our turbo-capitalist culture, opining on everything from sports teams to workplace diversity.
But anyone who expected firm and sustained opposition to Trump by the business sector has been roundly disappointed. Corporations profit by making decisions that are in their own best financial interests, full stop. The people who lead them are bound by to do the same. The result: Corporate CEOs and other C-suite executives are skilled in many ways, but politically courageous they are not. Even when business leaders take a public stand, they are usually following the crowd, not leading it. American and United airlines issued statements saying they would not transport migrant children separated from their parents at the border only after a Facebook post from an anonymous flight attendant discussing the practice went viral. Similarly, it took days for many corporate leaders to step forward to express public disapproval of the Trump administration’s initial reaction to blame both sides for right-wing violence in Charlottesville last summer. Better late than never? Of course. Leadership? Not so much.
It’s a delicate dance, this signaling. Facebook offers a typical example. CEO and founder Mark Zuckerberg and COO Sheryl Sandberg have openly disapproved of the Trump administration’s immigration policies, and both donated to a fund started by former Facebook employees to reunite immigrant families. “Listening to the cries of children separated from their parents is unbearable. The practice of family separation on our border needs to end now,” Sandberg wrote on Facebook. But Facebook has been less than straightforward about how it handles the privacy of its users and about its dealings with Cambridge Analytica. Moreover, the social-media giant appears to have somehow exempted right-wing conspiracy site InfoWars (best known for promoting the Pizzagate conspiracy theory, as well as claims the Newtown school massacre didn’t really happen) from its crackdown on fake news. And Facebook’s Washington lobbying shop is now headed up by two veterans of Republican administrations, something that’s no doubt helpful as the company battles to fend off increased regulation.
In fact, corporate leaders have received much of what they wanted from the Trump White House, which no doubt tempers any disagreement. Many in the financial sector, for example, have cheered the administration’s dismantling of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and banking regulations and protections. Those who do business with the Environmental Protection Agency evinced little anger about former EPA chief Scott Pruitt’s penny ante corruption spree. Then there are the long-desired corporate tax cuts. Leaders of numerous companies including AT&T and Wells Fargo almost immediately announced wage increases or bonuses after Trump signed the tax bill into law, in many cases explicitly tying their actions to the legislation in language that would not be unfamiliar to a courtier on the make at Versailles. A “special opportunity,” proclaimed First Farmers Bank & Trust President and chief executive Gene Miles in a press release.
Of course, compared to corporate heads throughout history, our current pack could be called upstanding. There is a long history of corporate involvement in political crackdowns, authoritarian regimes and all-but-grotesque business practices. American companies such as IBM continued to do business with Nazi Germany long after it became clear it was working with a murderous regime. In the 1970s, the International Telephone and Telegraph Corporation begged the Nixon White House to assist in the overthrow of Chilean president Salvador Allende.
But there’s no bravery to be found in 21st century C-suites. Corporations and those who run them always want to end up on the right side of power. When corporate heads step up and say it’s time for Trump to go and call out the Republican leadership in Congress for enabling his corrupt and quite possibly treasonous regime as president of the United States, it’s likely his time in the White House will already be near the end.